Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Thousand Natural Shocks

John Gray argues that Freud is out of fashion these days owing to his basically tragic view of human nature, according to which we are fundamentally conflicted creatures condemned to interpersonal (and intrapersonal) struggle. The point, to Freud, was to learn to live productively with that state of affairs--no "chicken soup for the soul" here! Full social and personal harmony and ultimate existential consolation are ideals we cannot achieve, so our best and only redemption is to learn to do without them.
Personally I happen to find this aspect of Freud appealing, much more so at any rate than his overweening dogmatism or his far-fetched psychosexual speculation. But if Freud was in fact a modern Stoic, his decline in influence and popularity merely reflects the fact that stoicism as a way of life has never been a mainstream ethos, at least in Western civilization. We'll be waiting a long time to hear a presidential candidate declare that his favorite philosopher is Epictetus. Whether wisely or not, human nature seems to crave more than what some of the more dour tenets of psychoanalysis can provide.
In a similar vein, Daniel Smith in the Times wonders (having trouble with the hyperlink function, sorry) at the persistently high level of anxiety in western culture, which objectively speaking is one of the more successful societies in history. Even the poor in the United States enjoy levels of material comfort unimagined by all but the most wealthy in most past eras. Whereas we experience "stress," the countless generations of history endured miseries of labor, climate, poverty, the random death of children due to infectious disease. This goes to show (unless we want to assume that our forebears experienced their lives as appalling affliction) that beyond a visceral baseline, suffering is never objective or absolute, but rather relative to our expectations, for ourselves and relative to others.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nature and Conservatism

In the Times Richard Friedman, M.D. questions the widely debated evolutionary origins and/or advantages of depression. While happiness may not have been selected for survival advantage over the eons (emotional hypersensitivity, paranoia, and compulsivity have their uses in certain environments), he reminds us of the naturalistic fallacy, that is, we shalt not derive an ought from an is. We do not hesitate to decry genocide, bacterial infection, or "nature red in tooth and claw" even though such phenomena are eminently natural.

Theoretically there is nothing, not even cheesecake or Youtube, outside of nature (there is only one reality after all), but practically human beings have always distinguished between realms of culture (that which we believe we have some power to modify) and nature (about which, like the weather, we can only ultimately talk and not do anything). And one doesn't have to be a tree-hugger to acknowledge some sublimity of nature as the realm from which we came and which remains ultimately beyond us. Insofar as nature has accomodated the evolution of human beings over a million years (and of life in general over several billion years), it constitutes a kind of metaphysical cradle that we do well to rock only gently. It is a comfort to know that countless galaxies are beyond the capacity of humanity to despoil. Confronted with nature's nearly infinite array of figurative knobs and levers, we eagerly push this or switch that, but it still remains quite possible that human civilization will drive life on earth into an ecological ditch over the next millenium. The birth of consciousness may turn out to have been a tragedy for the biosphere--or not.

And yet one does commit the naturalistic fallacy every day, every moment, as life itself is the fundamental is from which we derive the ought. Nietzsche's ideal of the "eternal recurrence," the willingness to live one's life over again, in every inevitable detail and infinitely many times, is the absolute expression of the naturalistic fallacy. Some fallacy. If the ought has no connection to the is, where else could it come from?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In The Beginning

As I read about the physicists' dismay at the possibility of our "accidental universe" amid myriad possible universes, I am puzzled over what we expect to find, ultimately, in so-called fundamental particles or laws. After all, what physical law could be so fundamental as to entail the existence of something rather than nothing?

The human mind has two explanatory needs, one for cause-and-effect and the other for narrative meaning, but it seems to me that both of these cannot be satisfied at the same time. Science does a marvelous job of explaining the behavior of matter within the range of conceivable human experience, but as we pursue cause-and-effect into the remoteness of time and abstraction, science leads to infinite regression. At a certain point, neither the Big Bang nor the infinite multiverse suffices as explanation; one can only say that there is something rather than nothing and that is that. We don't know why.

Narrative accounts on the other hand may gratify the basic emotional need for explanation, but then science goes out the window. There is something rather than nothing because God is in all places and all times--on this view a warm glow of necessity takes the place of the implacably arbitrary.

We have evolved as both calculating and valuing creatures, but these local faculties, while estimable in the human milieu, bear diminishing power into the deeps of space and time.